Overexposure to and a deficit of silence can be harmful to humans, negatively impacting upon our mental state. The same is true of democracy where we must always be concerned about apathetic silence and a dizzying array of constant noise. It has now become an area of thought for political actors to question whether they must speak on every issue and how often they must comment upon a single scenario. This conundrum has only become more important in a world where every soundbite will exist forever no matter how fleeting of a thought it may have been at the time. In response to this, I believe politicians now have to carefully analyse what they do not say as carefully as what they do say, as even their silence is political and can be thought of as worthy of analysis. We only need to look at the USA’s historic position on Taiwan, commonly known as ‘strategic ambiguity’ but could just as easily be interpreted as political silence, for an example of silence being a tool in itself. Northern Ireland has been no stranger to this idea of political silence whether that be the recent institutional silence that lasted three years or the silence of peace time following a prolonged, loud conflict. However, I would like to focus on how three of Northern Ireland’s political parties have decided to use (or not use) silence.
The most obvious place to start has to be the political party who has turned silence into one of their most versatile tools, Sinn Fein. It has often been remarked since 2017 that Sinn Fein have had to say relatively little and let the DUP do the work for them in rousing the nationalist electorate but it goes beyond that. Sinn Fein, when looking at any given situation, now appears to view silence as a perfectly viable alternative to action. In their 2022 election campaign, Sinn Fein were predicted to become the Assembly’s largest party but (at times) Michelle O’Neill was remarkably quiet on the matter. Neither triumphant nor confrontational but silently non-committal. It was also only months before that election when a controversial abortion bill was making its way through the assembly and in it’s early stages Sinn Fein held a decisive vote but whipped its MLA’s to abstain. Effectively symbolising a silent ambiguity on an issue which divided the party’s voter base. It could even be said that Sinn Fein had a number of controversial votes in the last assembly term and a number of controversies over the last five years (leading to substantial co-options) but all of their own MLAs remained silent on every occasion. Rarely was a head raised over the parapet and if it was it would be momentary to avoid a returning blow from the opposition.
Could we speculate as to where this focus on silence in Sinn Fein originated? It may be an unconscious mutation spread from their silence in Westminster, a variant which has passed over to other areas of the party’s thought processes. Maybe it is a simple by-product of the party’s approach to whipping, an art lost in many modern established political parties. Could the party have even transmitted the idea from the three years of institutional deadlock? Regardless, it is the silence of the peripheries that allows Sinn Fein’s singular voice as a political unit to be so clear. On issues which divide the voter base (and probably those within the party) they would rather retain their strategic ambiguity than risk the political clarity which has defined the party in recent times. It is hard to say that it has not worked.
This would stand in stark contrast to the DUP, who can rarely be associated with silence. It was only recently, when a coup created a divide within the party and then substantial noise was created from the TUV in the run up to the election. It was these two events which created a confusing cacophony from the DUP who appeared to even disorient themselves. In the face of Sinn Fein’s single voice, the DUP were singing an out of tune and mistimed melody. In the face of Sinn Fein’s quiet rise, the DUP attempted to portray a loud bravado in the face of their decline. Silence has become a strange, forgotten concept to the DUP but, to be fair, its founder (Ian Paisley) was rarely one for silence either so it may be in the party’s DNA to fill silence. When having to defend a position which you view as continuously under attack, silence probably becomes more unnerving than comforting. That was perfectly on display in the pre-election leader’s debates, when Jeffrey Donaldson took every opportunity he could to voice his opinion as loudly as possible. The party was created and sustained by Paisley’s oratory skills and now it attempts to maintain itself through a constant monotone noise. The messages are simple but at some stage you have to ask whether the loud bravado portrays more than just a discomfort with the silence but even a fear of it. When Donaldson spoke over other leaders in the debate, it meant that he did not have to compete with the completed thoughts of his opponents. It allowed for a stunted form of argument and a presentation that the DUP didn’t need to silently intake the arguments posed by others but were more concerned with the internal arguments of unionism. This, unfortunately, all led up to the DUPs only recent presentation of silence, their withdrawal from Stormont over the NI protocol.
While the DUP’s birth was loud, it was Alliance’s birth that centred around silence on the constitutional question. It is that silence which has placed them as the third largest party in the Assembly and a possible major player going forward (if we ever see the institution return). It was that silence on the constitutional question which allowed Alliance to highlight other matters which soon came to mean more to people electorally than the politics which we are used to. Now it is possible that Alliance will finally begin to find the silent majority which they have claimed to represent for so long. With their 2022 electoral success, we could be moving into an era when the political voice of the ‘other’ finally gets a chance to present itself as substantial and important.
However, It is within that silence that one of the Alliance’s main problems will lie one day. If a border poll is ever announced, will the party individuals finally voice their opinion on the matter and if they do will they lose all of their essential appeal?
Who truly knows but what is for certain is that Alliance, along with the DUP and Sinn Fein, have come to rely on their usage of silence or lack thereof. To some degree, the importance of knowing when to speak was always key to the success of political actors but, now more than ever when every thought is catalogued as data, knowing when to remain silent can be as powerful as knowing what to say. For Sinn Fein it has allowed them to maintain political clarity and side step controversial topics despite their growth. The DUP’s lack of silence may well portray their decline and their resistance to it. Alliance’s silence is the very core of their being, their guiding light, but may one day be the party’s downfall.
Ironically, the silence speaks volumes.